Exactly halfway between the North Pole and the Equator, on the southwest coast of France, lies the region of Bordeaux with its 284,000 acres of vineyards. Covering a multitude of different landscapes -- from the gravelly rises in the Medoc to the low-lying hills of Sauternes to the slopes of the Entre-Deux-Mers -- Bordeaux vineyards produce wines that share not only a common name, but a worldwide reputation for greatness.
Producing 25 percent of France's Appellation d'Origine Controllee (AOC) wines, Bordeaux ranks high among the wine-producing regions in France with respect to size, quality and unmistakable character. Bordeaux includes no fewer than 57 appellations, more than 9,000 wine chateaux, 60 cooperative cellars and 400 wine shippers. It all may seem overwhelming, but there's a system here, governed by old traditions and an honest passion for excellent wine. And we're here to sort it out for you.
Of the wine Bordeaux produces, 82 percent is red. There are five grape varietals that can legally be used to make Bordeaux reds: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. As for Bordeaux whites, the legal grape varietals are sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle.
Bordeaux vineyards sprawl over five distinct regions, which are divided into 57 appellations. Generally speaking, the soil is gravelly, ideal for drainage, lean and clean. Subsoils of clay, sand and limestone, varying by region, add extra dimension to each different wine.
Strict laws for Bordeaux's AOC wines not only determine the origin of a wine, they also regulate the blend of varietals, maximum vine yields, growing and pruning methods, and minimum alcohol percentages. Despite the region's unpredictable weather, Bordeaux vines, by law, may not be irrigated. All of this means that the vintage date of a Bordeaux wine is extremely important. Spring frosts or early autumn rains, for example, can destroy an entire crop.
There are four basic styles of Bordeaux wine:
LIGHT REDS - everyday wines, easy to drink when young
FINE REDS - wines made for aging
DRY WHITES - wines made for early consumption
SWEET WHITES - sensational dessert/aperitif wines
As for the chateaux, no, they're not ancient castles with dungeons, dragons or drawbridges. They're individual properties with vineyards and winemaking facilities, whether they're houses or sheds. They symbolize that in Bordeaux it's not just the soil that makes a wine, it's also the owner and the estate. The chateaux are subdivided into crus classes -- from first to fifth growth -- or petits chateaux -- crus bourgeois and crus paysan. (See the info on Medoc for more on this.)
A Bordeaux label must mention the appellation designation. From the most generic to the most specific (and therefore better) these are:
Appellation Bordeaux or Bordeaux superieur
Appellation Bordeaux + region
Appellation Bordeaux + region + chateau
Let's look at the individual regions:
In the oldest and most famous region, Medoc, a narrow 50-mile strip between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary, the vines grow on gravelly plateaus, called "croupes," to avoid the heavy clay underneath. Cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc thrive here. Some Medoc wines contain as much as 40 percent merlot, with perhaps a small amount of petit verdot. The region is home to seven appellations: Haut Medoc, Saint Estephe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Moulis, Listrac and Margaux.
The banks of the Gironde are as good as it gets. But how do you classify excellence? Enter the Paris Exhibition of 1855, where wine brokers agreed to rank Bordeaux wines -- as long as no one dared to make an official system out of their vote. Guess what? Voila! It became the official Medoc classification of 1855. And guess what -- it's still going strong today.
The system placed chateaux into five "growths," the best being labeled "first growth," or grand cru classe. Those chateaux were: Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion (Graves). In 1973, Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from second-growth status to first, so now there are five.
Chateaux not ranked as official "growths" may choose to belong to the Medoc syndicate. More than 300 of these chateaux are currently entitled to the name cru bourgeois. The best of these wines may be as good as or better than some of the lower-ranked growths from the 1855 rating.
Graves and Pessac-Leognan
Named after the pebbles in its soil, Graves is the most gravelly area in Bordeaux. From its 12,844 acres west of the Garonne River, Graves produces 60 percent red and 40 percent white wine. It's famous for its red -- a blend with slightly more merlot than cabernet, which makes it softer and easier to drink young than a Medoc. Its whites are always dry, heavy on semillon, light on sauvignon blanc.
Graves' most famous chateau, Haut Brion, belongs to the original 1855 classification. But in the 1950s, a special classification for Graves wines was initiated, and 16 were permitted the title of crus classes. Today, there are eight white wine growths and 16 red. All other chateaux may call themselves crus bourgeois. Graves' best wines distinguish themselves with the name Pessac-Leognan.
Sauternes and Barsac
South of Graves, the warmer, drier climate and limestone-rich soil of Sauternes make for the most sensual white wines in the world. Always white, made mostly of semillon, a Sauternes has to be sweet by definition. If it isn't, it must be labeled Bordeaux. Sauternes' sweetness comes from semillon's unique ability to raisin with the help of a fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Several pickings are necessary, making Sauternes expensive and, in some years, extremely rare. Chateau d'Yquem represents the region's grand premier cru, followed by 11 premier crus and 13 deuxieme crus. When you buy Sauternes, be careful, since some smaller producers use unorthodox shortcuts to avoid the tedious process. Their wines, although just as sweet, lack the tremendous complexity of a classic, honey-like Sauternes.
Barsac is part of the Sauternes appellation. All wines produced here are also entitled to the appellation Sauternes, but the reverse is not the case. Generally, wines from Barsac are slightly lighter in style than those from Sauternes, though this depends on the individual properties and winemaking practices.
Situated east of the Gironde is St-Emilion, where the grape variety of choice is merlot, supported by cabernet franc and a bit of cabernet sauvignon. From its steep slopes to gravelly plateaus to sandy soils, St-Emilion's 12,676 acres breathe wine. This region concentrates on high-quality reds only. In 1954, St-Emilion designed a classification system, which can be revised yearly, offering the sub-appellation St-Emilion Grand Cru for about 55 of its best chateaux. Another 13 chateaux may call themselves Premier Grand Cru.
On the outskirts of St-Emilion lie four satellite appellations: Lussac St-Emilion, Montagne St-Emilion, Puisseguin St-Emilion and St.-Georges St-Emilion. If there are any bargains to be had in the region, here's where you'll find them.
Tiny Pomerol, with its 1,880 acres, makes red wines. Scarce and special red wines. Situated south of St-Emilion, Pomerol has sandier soil, with a cold clay subsoil and, here and there, iron nuggets. Its vineyards grow merlot and cabernet franc, the latter called bouchet in this area. Pomerol is the only region in Bordeaux that has no classification system for its chateaux.
If you want to impress someone really special, buy them a bottle of Chateau Petrus. Consisting of 95 percent or more merlot, it holds a category all of its own. (But if you have to ask how much it costs...)
That's it for the five main regions. But the appellations on the periphery of Bordeaux deserve attention as well and offer some cool and affordable wines. In the triangular area of Entre-Deux-Mers, wedged between the "seas" of the Garonne in the west and the Dordogne in the east, you'll find dry whites, very much like those from Graves and very much cheaper. For good-value reds, look for appellations Cotes de Blaye and Cotes de Bourg.
So how do you buy?
Experiment with the petits chateaux -- the crus bourgeois and paysan. They're a great entry point to the wines of Bordeaux because, while affordable, they also represent the unique style of a region. Then treat yourself to a fifth-growth, perhaps, and move up the ranks. You'll not only notice the increase in quality, but the family resemblance. And you'll no doubt find that drinking good Bordeaux is an experience that will change your view of fine wine forever.